Alexander Wilson is one of the most important Americans who produced natural history prints, but he remains relatively unknown. When most people think of the study and illustration of American birds, they think of John James Audubon, who monumental tome, Birds of America, came out between 1827 to 1838. However, while Audubon’s work is in many ways the pinnacle of American bird illustration, the study of this subject began well before Audubon, and two decades earlier, Audubon was preceded by another naturalist whose seminal publication and prints of American birds, gives its author, Alexander Wilson, priority of claim as the pioneer in the field of American ornithology.
Alexander Wilson was born on July 6th, 1766, in Paisley, Scotland, the son of a smuggler turned weaver. He originally was educated with the eye of going into the ministry, but his mother died when he was nine, his father remarrying, and Alexander was soon taken out of school. That was the only formal education Wilson ever had.
As a young man, Wilson had a variety of jobs, though mostly he worked as a weaver and peddler, yet at heart he was of a more philosophical bent. Wilson grew to love nature and wandered widely through the Scottish woods. He read extensively, especially poetry which he also wrote, achieving some success as a poet in his native land. Wilson’s most famous poem, though published anonymously, was, Watty and Meg, a favorite among the Scots which was sometimes was attributed to Robert Burns.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century, Wilson got himself into trouble by publishing satires in support of Paisley’s weavers against the mill owners, eventually being arrested for trying to blackmail a mill owner by using the threat of publishing a pamphlet against him. As a result, Wilson spent time on and off in jail. This, and his concern over the possible repercussions of his connections with political radicals, finally decided Wilson that he should emigrate to America, which he did in 1794.
Upon his arrival in Philadelphia, Wilson found jobs at an engraver’s shop, as a weaver, as a surveyor, but primarily as a school teacher. In 1802, he took up a teaching position at the Union School near Gray’s Ferry, just across the Schuylkill from Philadelphia. This move changed his life, for he found himself living and working very near the home of William Bartram, the preeminent American natural scientist of the day.
In America, Wilson continued to wander in the woods and he came to have a particular interest in birds, partly as a hunter but also as a naturalist. Wilson was particularly amazed by the variety and beauty of American birds compared to those in Europe. William Bartram took notice of his new neighbor, clearly a budding naturalist, and he befriended Wilson, especially encouraging him in his ornithological interest. Bartram allowed Wilson to explore his extensive woods, use his library and introduced Wilson to the world of Philadelphia naturalists.
Wilson’s enthusiasm was fully aroused and within a year of his move Wilson stated that he would attempt to assemble “a collection of all our finest birds.” By that he meant American birds, and he intended not only to collect specimens, but also to make drawings, and indeed he decided to produce an illustrated natural history of “all the birds of this part of North America.”
He had about 100 finished drawings of birds and decided that he could produce a book of hand-colored engravings, with text, which would document all the birds of America. His plan was to produce a set of 10 volumes with 10 plates in each, which would sell for $120 for the whole set, but would be sold by subscription at $12 per volume. Wilson planned to start with the more popular birds in the first volume, so as to entice people to subscribe, and then he would be able to use the money that came in from each volume in order to produce the next volume and also to continue to travel around the country to collect specimens.
Wilson was very fortunate when in early 1806, Philadelphia publisher Samuel Bradford hired him as assistant editor for the American edition of Ree’s Cyclopaedia. Bradford was intrigued by Wilson’s ornithological project and he decided to back Wilson in the publication of this proposed work. Bradford realized there was an opportunity to piggy-back the Wilson book with the Cyclopedia, for he could have Wilson travel around the country selling subscriptions for both works, and at the same time Wilson could gather information for future volumes of the bird book.
Bradford agreed to publish the first volume of the book, which was to be entitled American Ornithology. His firm, Bradford & Inskeep, would underwrite the cost of this volume, to be published in an edition of 200 copies, but the project would be dropped if Wilson was unable to secure enough subscribers. Wilson and Bradford produced a prospectus and two sample plates which Wilson could take with him to show to potential subscribers. The prospectus said that American Ornithology would be issued in bi-monthly numbers, with three plates per number, to be sold at $2 each. However, they ended up issuing the work in volumes, instead of numbers, with 9 plates per volume.
So, Wilson began a series of extensive trips around the United States to sell the Cyclopedia and, more importantly to him, to get subscribers for American Ornithology. Over the next five years, Wilson was to travel more than 10,000 miles, much of it on foot, visiting every state in the United States, as well many of its territories. Wilson visited anywhere there were people interested in scientific subjects who he thought might subscribe.
These trips were not, however, just for selling subscriptions, for throughout his travels Wilson continued to work on research for his book. He made field drawings, recorded observations on the habits and habitats of the birds, and also shot birds to be used as specimens. The Carolina parakeet shown at left was the actual specimen used by Wilson for his print of the bird.
Wilson was also able to gather specimens from his various correspondents, including from Meriweather Lewis, who upon his return from his expedition with William Clark gave Wilson the bird specimens he had brought back with him. These included three new species: the Western Tanager, Clark’s Crow, and Lewis’ Woodpecker, which Wilson put on a plate in the Ornithology.
Subscriptions went slowly at first and throughout the publication history of the book there was considerable financial pressure on Wilson because subscribers did not pay anything until they actually received the volumes. When he wasn’t out drumming up subscriptions, Wilson was busy with his drawings, writing up his notes, and personally checking on the plates and coloring as the prints came out.
The first volume was completed in Sept. 1808. 200 copies were produced with 158 pages of text and 9 plates depicting 34 birds. Wilson was able to take copies of this volume with him on his selling trip to New England and New York, which was not very successful, to a great extent because of the Embargo of 1807. However, his subsequent trip to the American South was more fruitful, as that region was not nearly as impacted by the embargo. Wilson was actually able to sign up 200 subscribers, so it seemed that the American Ornithology would be a success, with Wilson even convincing Bradford to increase the run of plates to 500.
The second volume was delayed, however, because there were more plates needed for this volume, plus there were extra 300 plates needed for Volume 1 for the new subscribers, and also because of the problems involved in hand-coloring so many plates. The second volume finally came out at the very beginning of 1810 and the third not following until March 1811.
In early 1811, Wilson quit as editor of Ree’s Cyclopaedia so he could concentrate on American Ornithology. The financial situation was not good, as the volumes were taking longer to produce than anticipated and no monies came in until they were delivered. Not only that, but by late 1811 the tensions which would lead to the War of 1812 had begun to affect the country’s economy, causing some subscribers to drop out and making supplies harder and more expensive to get.
Wilson worked feverishly on, publishing the fourth volume in September 1811, the fifth in February, 1812, and the sixth in August of that year. To exasperate his problems, financial issues caused all his colorists to quit in the winter of 1812, so Wilson had to do all the subsequent coloring of the prints on his own.
About this time Wilson began his acquaintance with George Ord, a local dilatant and amateur naturalist. Inspired by Wilson, Ord soon dedicated himself to the study of ornithology, bringing Wilson many new specimens and accompanying him on frequent trips to find new species.
In the spring of 1813, the seventh volume of American Ornithology was issued, but just four months later Wilson died of dysentery. George Ord was named one of his executors and he undertook the publishing of the final two volumes. All the plates for these had already been drawn, but one plate for Volume 8 still needed to be engraved and Ord had to edit Wilson’s notes on the birds for the last volume. These two volumes were published in 1814, the last volume containing only 4 prints.
Ord took on the role as protector of Wilson’s legacy, and early in the next decade he commissioned Charles-Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon’s nephew and a respected naturalist who had settled near Philadelphia, to produce American Ornithology; or the Natural History of Birds inhabiting the United States, not given by Wilson. This work, usually called “Bonaparte’s Supplement,” was issued in four volumes from 1825 to 1833, illustrating 27 new species. Ord also produced a second edition of Wilson’s 9 volume set in 1824-25, and a third edition, with two volumes of text and a single atlas volume of plates in 1828-29.
When completed, American Ornithology consisted of nine volumes published in Philadelphia by Bradford and Inskeep between 1808 and 1814 It contained 76 hand colored engravings composed of 320 figures depicting 262 species, including 48 that had never before been recorded. According to one study, this was over three quarters of the bird species that resided in the United States as it was then constituted, a really impressive achievement for the first attempt at an American ornithology.
The birds in the American Ornithology were not shown in any scientific order, but essentially in the order Wilson came across them, beginning with the more common and popular birds. Wilson prepared his drawings for each bird based on his field sketches, as well as on studies he made of specimens that he had collected or which were given to him or which he found in the Peale Museum.
Wilson’s drawings were engraved onto copper plates by a number of engravers, including John G. Warnicke, but mostly by his friend and compatriot Alexander Lawson. Several species were usually put onto a single plate, sometimes quite crammed in, mainly because this was cheaper in terms of the cost of the copper for the plates, but also so Wilson could show more birds within the scope of the proposed work.
One point to note is that funding was more available when George Ord produced the later editions-—as the work had by then achieved a considerable reputation—-so whereas the paper used in the first edition was barely bigger than the plates themselves, the later edition prints have bigger margins. The lack of money for the first edition, compared to the later editions, also means that the paper and ink for the first edition were not as good quality and so first edition prints tend to have condition issues not found in the later edition prints.
If one is used to looking at the dramatic and imposing double-elephant folio prints of John James Audubon, then Wilson’s small folio images might seem tame and unimpressive. However, they are really charming images, teaming with a variety of birds, their unusual appearance fascinatingly explained by the history of the work from whence they came. The print by Alexander Wilson are among the best American natural history prints every produced.
Below is a selection of original prints by Alexander Wilson.